A qualitative study that utilizes interviews, group discussions, and/or observations is not necessarily a piece of research. There are many instances when reported exercises in qualitative gathering are labeled qualitative research when in fact the results may have provided interesting qualitative information but are not research findings that can be relied on to confidently guide hypotheses or next steps.
The distinction lies in the rigor of the design and implementation of the data gathering and analysis processes. Qualitative research (like all research) adheres to certain standards in the research protocol to maximize the integrity and ultimate usefulness of the data. Qualitative information, on the other hand, uses what appears to be similar methods but without the attention to basic research principles required to lay the foundation and support for the integrity of the outcomes.
As just one example, there was a study published in a peer-reviewed journal a few years back that reported on the use of focus group discussions and in-depth interviews to investigate primary care providers’ (PCPs’) perceptions and practices related to cognitive health.
In terms of sampling: 1) the researchers relied heavily on convenience sampling, e.g., recruiting from clinics where they had connections and soliciting interest among conference attendees; 2) there was no screening process by which to select participants from interested individuals; and 3) everyone who showed up to participate was accepted.
In terms of coverage: 1) less than half of the PCPs’ patients were 65 years of age or older and less than one fourth of these patients had been given any dementia-related diagnosis. This is important because these characteristics of the participant pool may have impacted the analysis and main takeaways; and 2) the researchers suggest that cooperation may have been low – e.g., when only one person showed up for a focus group, the researchers simply conducted a one-on-one interview with that participant – which begs the question, ‘Who did not cooperate (i.e., show up to participate) and how are these people the same or different than those who did?’
In terms of data gathering: 1) instead of a fully designed research guide, the researchers asked participants to simply react to a brief case study followed by two main questions concerning cognitive health; 2) instead of using probing and clarification skills to engage participants and unearth their responses to all questions, interviewers allowed participants to answer a question different from the one that was asked; and 3) the researchers make no mention of the participant composition in their focus group discussions yet the composition of participants in a focus group discussion plays an important role in determining the course of discussion and the integrity of the data.
In terms of analysis and discussion, the researchers do not appear to have made a serious attempt to analyze their data from the perspective of the sampling, coverage, and data gathering limitations of their study, leaving the reader with a low level of confidence in the key findings, and a sense that the study produced some interesting information but not research outcomes that contribute meaningful knowledge to the research issue.
Distinguishing between qualitative information and qualitative research takes a certain amount of, what Mario Luis Small has called, “qualitative literacy.” As discussed in an earlier RDR post, qualitative literacy “enables the research user to identify the difference between a rigorous qualitative study and a study that applied weak or less rigorous standards.” Greater qualitative literacy should enable researchers to understand – during the design, data gathering, and analysis phases – whether they have conducted an exercise in gathering information that may be interesting for consideration or qualitative research that confidently moves the user closer to answering the research question.
Image captured from: https://www.ericksonliving.com/tribune/articles/2018/09/apple-day-and-orange